Looking at Challenges
I recently spoke one-on-one with a couple dozen children’s ministry leaders from around the country. They represented a variety of ecclesiastical traditions and church sizes. I asked a couple of questions: “How should children’s ministry change to remain relevant in a quickly changing world?” and “What does the future of children’s ministry look like?” Out of the conversations, a few themes emerged.
- We have about the same number of children in our programs each week, but the faces keep changing.
- We want to support Mom and Dad as they disciple their kids, but we’re lucky if they know who we are and why when their kids see us in town, they begin talking to a “stranger.”
- Everyone is so busy. Our kids. Our volunteers. Our parents. Oh yeah—and us.
- We aren’t sure how we should be using technology in children’s ministry.
- How do you build community between children and each other, adults, and the corporate church when regular attendance for half the group has become once every four to six weeks?
So when the needs are this great, the time this short, attendance this infrequent, everyone this busy and pressured, and the resources this scarce, maybe it’s time we step back, catch our collective breath, and have a conversation.
A friend of mine likes to say when he was growing up, he was in church 24 hours a month, but these days it seems like we’re lucky to see our kids at church 24 hours a year. We wanted to look at factors that might affect a family’s engagement with church, knowing many would be beyond our control, but wanting to at least understand our times.
In 1960, 5% of children were born to an unmarried mother, but according to the Center for Disease Control, this year unmarried mothers will account for 41% of newborns. In 2013, the “National Health Statistics Report” produced by the U.S. government reported that 2006-2010, almost half of women ages 15-44 cohabitated with their partner as a first union, up from 34% from the mid-90s.
In one CDC study of 3,000 men, 27% of fathers lived apart from one or more of their children and the involvement of these fathers was markedly lower in almost every category of engaging their children. Today in the U.S., only about two-thirds of children live in a traditional home (2012, U.S. Census Bureau) with two married parents, down from three-quarters in the 1980s.
“How’s it going?” If you ask someone who’s trying to be polite, they’ll say “good.” Most of the time, I hear, “Busy!” It isn’t a misperception. It’s a reality. According to the World Bank data on the U.S. Labor Market, our workforce participation rates have remained roughly the same for many years. But the amount of work each of us tackles has gone up dramatically, particularly among women. According to The State of Working America (12th edition), published by the Economic Policy Institute, the average worker put in 181 more hours in 2007 than they would have in 1979—about 4.5 weeks. It’s like the whole workforce found a way to squeeze an extra month into the existing twelve. The greatest change is among women, working 20% more hours per year on average. The implication is role strain and fatigue. A recent Barna Research Group study reported 80% of mothers interviewed are overwhelmed with stress, 70% without enough rest, 62% dissatisfied with their work/home balance and over half feeling overcommitted. Knowing this, we shouldn’t be surprised when “regular” church attendance becomes once every 4-6 weeks instead of every week.
Weekly church attendance remains lower than a generation ago. In the 1950s, according to Gallup, weekly church attendance was as high as 49%. More recently, in the mid-2000s, Barna reports weekly attendance at 43%. These days, it’s probably more like 37% (Pew Research), 39% (Gallup), or 36% (Barna) but among millenials it’s closer to 25%.
Perhaps, more important is the changing perspectives among parents to instill the Christian faith in children. A 2009 study by Lifeway reported only 9% of parents defined godliness or faith in God in their children as a goal of “successful” parenting. A 2013 study published by Lifeway research reported one in four respondents believe being a committed Christian was part of being a good parent, even though statistically, three out of the four claim Christianity as their religion. For children’s ministries that see themselves as a partner to the home, and the primacy of parents in childhood spiritual formation, these statistics represent a daunting challenge.
According to a 2010 study by the Kaiser Family Foundation, 8 to18-year-olds devote an average of 7 hours and 38 minutes per day to using entertainment media (more than 53 hours per week). If you count tech multi-tasking (more than one screen at a time), children and youth total over ten hours per day across all screens on average. It’s not hard to imagine a child spending 25-50 hours per year in a local church ministry compared with 2,737 hours on entertainment media.
Technology models remain in infancy in many of our children’s ministries. Beyond video-based lessons, there are few if any interactive children’s ministry platforms being adopted by churches. The challenge is a growing dissonance in the regular lives of children and the church lives of children, as they are handed a paper take-home coloring sheet and get on their iPad for the drive home from church playing cutting edge interactive games.
It’s clear that the modern local church children’s ministry faces some daunting challenges. While there are many strategic conversations arising from our experiences, perhaps these three are the most critical. First, how do we re-engage parents effectively? Second, how should we use technology in discipling children? Third, if children can’t come to church, how do we bring church to them?
It’s easy to feel frustration with parents, but in love, we need to understand that parents feel more overwhelmed than ever before. Parents are working longer hours, feel exhausted with demands on their time, and are overwhelmed by the “oughts” of the modern parent. They ought to make sure their kids have fantastic grades, lots of extra-curricular activity, college ready, play dates, family meals, organic food, only soy/rice/almond milk, good self-esteem, and a thousand other things. If ever parents needed our support and affirmation, it’s now—in spite of the concern we feel that they are losing vision for their children’s spiritual development.
As leaders in the church, families want a theology of technology, and they don’t have one. They struggle with standards (how much is too much), double standards (“stop watching TV and playing games while I check Facebook”), and how to leverage their children’s love of technology for faith development. As children’s ministry leaders, we understand their confusion, because we aren’t certain how we should be using technology in ministry. Should church time be a sabbatical from entertainment media, or leverage it? Should the church be using technology to extend its work into the home or not?
If children’s engagement with our on-site ministries is diminishing in frequency, do we need a strategy for taking the church to them? As children’s ministries, we have many doors to our on-site ministry. VBS. Summer camps. Sunday school. Kids’ church. But all of these share the requirement of children being in our space. For many children, walking to church isn’t an option; their attendance isn’t their choice. So what does a missional imperative to children look like? How do we project the influence of the church—its love, nurture, and faith development—into the lives of children when they aren’t “with” us?
These questions need robust reflection, experimentation, and the development of new models, strategies, and philosophies of ministry.
For the past thirteen years, Chad has served as the Vice President of Global Ministries at OneHope and in more recent years has worked with his team in transitioning the ministry into an outcome-based ministry orientation, with the integration of market, program and outcome research in program design and evaluation. Chad has been married for 19 years to Jeannine, and is the proud father of four children: Abigail, Charles, Katherine and Caleb. The Causeys reside in Coconut Creek, Florida.